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How McLean County Shaped Rep. Adam Kinzinger

Adam Kinzinger speaking at House committee hearing
Kevin Deitsch
Pool via AP
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., questions witnesses before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing looking into the firing of State Department Inspector General Steven Linick, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s support for impeachment of former President Donald Trump helped make Kinzinger a national political figure. He's also taking heat from many within his own party and even his own family.Those who followed the early days of Kinzinger’s political career in McLean County aren’t surprised by his success or the courage that has put his career in jeopardy.

Erik Rankin
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Erik Rankin

Erik Rankin is a fierce Democrat and former head of the McLean County Democratic party. Rankin became friends with Kinzinger in grade school. They lived on the same street in south Bloomington. They hung out a lot. Even then, Rankin said Kinzinger didn't lack confidence.

“Adam rode the bus and he told everybody he was going to run for Congress someday. That’s not even a made-up story. We all laughed at him,” Rankin recalled. “I guess we’re the ones who look like fools.”

Kinzinger studied political science at Illinois State University. One of his professors was Gary Klass. The now retired Klass said Kinzinger was a good student who enjoyed a good debate.

“I remember him as a little bit conservative, but I really liked having students on both sides,” Klass said.

It turned out to be good prep for later. Kinzinger said there were times he was the only conservative in the classroom.

“I think that taught me to be able to stand alone and to be able to defend your position without having to have people around to support you,” Kinzinger recalled.

Kinzinger still had a lot to learn. Rankin said Kinzinger struggled to focus in school.

“Much like typical 18-year-olds, middle-class White America, he was a bit of a knucklehead and just really couldn’t find a way to make the academic side work with his social side,” Rankin said.

Those distractions almost ended Kinzinger's college career early. Kinzinger said he refocused and graduated on time.

“I give ISU a lot of credit for that,” Kinzinger said. “I know they had no idea who I was. I was a number applying but they let me back in. They gave me a second chance.”

Kinzinger found purpose in politics, and Rankin said it helped him "get his act together." At age 20, Kinzinger ran for McLean County Board and beat an incumbent to become the youngest member to serve on the board. That was in 1998.

George Gordon
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
George Gordon

George Gordon, a Democrat, served on the board with Kinzinger. He said Kinzinger was conscientious. Gordon recalls when the board was divided on naming a new chair, Kinzinger wanted to hear from advocates for both candidates.

“What struck a couple of us (board members) particularly was how carefully he went about the decision-making process,” Gordon recalled. “At that point he was 22.”

Kinzinger didn't just settle for ordinary duties on the county board. David Selzer also served with Kinzinger. The two Republicans pushed to abolish the elected recorder's office and move the duties to the county clerk to save money. Selzer said he could tell Kinzinger had the courage of his convictions.

David Selzer
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
David Selzer

“I think Adam came to the county board with that already shaped,” Selzer said. “I believe that his parents raised their children with this belief in themselves.”

Kinzinger's family grounding included his father Russ, who ran a faith-based homeless shelter in Bloomington.

Retired ISU professor Bob Bradley said Kinzinger saw people in need at an early age, adding that animates Kinzinger's sense of service and values.

“As a conservative, you rely on private community entities to help people, rather than relying exclusively or primarily on the government for assistance,” Bradley said. “He has seen that directly.”

Kinzinger resigned from the County Board in 2003 to join the Air Force. Kinzinger said he was inspired to serve after the 9/11 terror attacks. Back then, Kinzinger said military life provides something politics can't.

“I look at it and I see real unity,” Kinzinger said in a 2003 interview with WGLT. “There’s almost a brother and a sisterhood of people that every day have to wake up with the thought at some point they may be called to give their lives for the other person.

“I love politics. That’s kind of an area that’s missing in politics.”

Kinzinger served in Iraq and Afghanistan but he never gave up on politics. Rankin said joining the Air Force grounded Kinzinger. In 2006, Kinzinger saved a woman who was being attacked at knifepoint in Milwaukee.

Rankin said Kinzinger's profile continued to rise.

“You could just see that his story was writing itself,” Rankin said. “Adam thought and cared about other people.”

Kinzinger recently began his sixth term in Congress. It also might be his most perilous. After the January insurrection, Kinzinger called for Donald Trump to be impeached and removed from office. Two county GOP parties in his district have censured Kinzinger. A family member even sent a letter saying Kinzinger was working for the "devil's army."

Gordon said Kinzinger knows the risk he takes in trying to reshape a party that is still loyal to Donald Trump.

“I’m impressed with his guts. He has shown a lot of political courage,” Gordon said.

Rankin said when Kinzinger says he vows to try to change the Republican Party--even if it costs him his career--he means it.

“He’s not going to act like a lot of other people and pretend to sweep things under the rug that he knows are wrong because he actually has a moral compass,” Rankin said. “Politicians with a moral compass are actually very few and far between.”

Rankin said he and Kinzinger are still friends. They are political opposites. Rankin said their political views never got in the way of friendship because disagreements are never personal.

Rankin said he and Kinzinger stay in touch, but even he doesn't know what Kinzinger wants to do next: stay in Congress, run for higher office, start his own foundation or something else.

Rankin is watching Kinzinger put his career on the line to change a party Rankin has opposed for much of his life. Yet, if Kinzinger called Rankin and asked him to work on something, Rankin said he'd likely say yes.

“I’d have a very difficult time telling him no,” Rankin acknowledged.

When Republicans in Will County voted to censure Kinzinger, the congressman issued a statement saying the Will County GOP has failed to help local Republicans get elected.

Kinzinger said they should spend more time on that than "petty censure votes." 

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